GO WEST, YOUNG MAN continued
by Stephanie Funk, Northeastracer Editor, and Northeast Division 2018 H-Production Champion, photos by the author.
The continuation of Ms. Funks drive to the 2018 SCCA National Runoffs at Sanoma. Part One, discussed her campaign for 2018 leading up to the invitation at the runoffs. We left her boarding a plane headed for San Fransico and eventually Sonoma.....
I grabbed my carry on and hustled after my husband and crew. Throngs of people swarmed around me as we headed towards the sky train at San Francisco International Airport. My backpack was a firm weight bouncing between my shoulder blades.
“Can you try to be a little less aggressive? I’m going to lose my lunch.” The voice was in my left ear, annoying me with its proximity.
“You’re the one who had to fart like a water buffalo for 3,000 miles. Consider this payback.”
“That wasn’t me: it was the big guy in the other seat.”
I sighed and shrugged the pack back, trying my best to ignore the occupant who was chattering in my ear. Ahead of me, the train slid to a stop. My husband and crew pushed their way into the crowded car, struggling to find room for the fleet of baggage we were carrying with us; everything we would need for a week at the SCCA Runoffs in Sonoma CA.
I probably carried the biggest baggage of them all. Not just as the driver upon whom everyone was either depending on or secretly fearing of, but as the guardian of the legless little creep who was currently riding on my back. I pushed my way in beside a large Italian woman and a small Asian man, pressed my back against the wall and braced as the train slid away from the terminal.
The hitchhiker in my backpack protested, “Ouch! Watch it! I’m not to be treated like chattel, you know!”
California in October is a foggy, yellow place where burnt hills rise above the low lying mist to pierce a sky an impossible shade of cerulean blue. Traffic carried us like a blood cell in an artery from San Francisco across the Golden Gate and over the top of the bay. It was an unrelenting snake of movement, pushing and pulling us along. Sonoma Raceway was a bowl of burnt hills where traffic split for wine country. The echo of race motors greeted us as we wearily climbed out at registration..
In a testament to how small the SCCA family really is, we were greeted by and checked in by familiar faces from our home tracks, some 3,000 miles away.
I left my backpack and its occupant in the car. I really didn’t feel like buying him an over crew pass. And, truth be told, asking for a crew pass for a freaking inanimate object is kind of strange, don’t you think?
If you are a regular at New Jersey Motorsports Park, then chances are, you’ve already met the monkey on my back. Tagged with the ignominious moniker of “Little Man” this legless wonder was typically found in Tom Smith’s (#94 STL) garage. Originating in the 1970’s as yet another toy designed to screw up an entire generation, this creepy little being was originally named, “Hugo; Man of a Thousand Disguises.”
He may have been a man of a thousand disguises, but he wasn’t a man of a thousand places. Tom tended to stick to a few venues, depriving Little Man the chance to see the country. We decided to give him a much needed outing, liberating him for an exciting trip of a lifetime. We would later come to wonder if this had been a fatal error
Sonoma Raceway is a sprawling complex featuring a 2.52 mile road course that twists and turns over the hillside. I had flown out in June to compete in the Majors race, in my new-to-me car, a Honda CRX in H Production. Mechanical issues had thrown a monkey wrench into the weekend, derailing what had promised to be a competitive event.
We had worked remotely throughout the summer to correct the issues we had. I wasn’t sure how it would play out, but I was cautiously hopeful.
The first session out dashed those hopes. The gremlins that plagued me in June reared their heads once again. The throttle could only go about halfway before the engine would tail off and bog. That set the tone for the next week.
Little Man sat in the window of garage 24, the sunshine streaming across his bald dome. Joel, Matt and Ed labored under the hood of the car, passing tools and epitaphs between them. Bored, restless and a bit unnerved by the issues we were already experiencing, I sought to distract myself.
Kelly, our awesome hooligan and fellow motorcycle enthusiast was busying herself picking up and straightening out our area. I grabbed Little Man and her.
“Come on. Let’s check this place out. I can tell I’m not getting out for the next test session today.” The variety of parts strewn about the car confirmed that diagnosis.
The three of us turned left out of the garage, heading for the tech area. Tech was located in the first few garages and in the large white tent set up across from them. I spied several familiar black shirts in the garages. If you have ever run in New Jersey, you will be familiar with “The Men In Black”, New Jersey’s tech guys. Cars in familiar liveries rolled past as we walked down to where the grid was located. Former New Yorker Amy Mills was there with husband Whitfield Gregg in the Flatout car.
The fog had burned off, leaving the air crisp and bight. I spied a familiar white Miata with Charlie Campbell of PA driving. Across from pit lane, cars hurtled down the straight to the last hairpin turn onto the main straight. I spied the familiar car of Andrew Aquilante among the sedans as they clawed their way around the 90 degree turn.
My phone buzzed with an incoming text: get back here, you’re going out.
We turned and sprinted back to the garage as they called for the cars for our group to get ready.
I tossed Little Man on the chair. “Ow! Hey bitch, be careful!”
“Shut up!” I was already stripping my shirt off.
“What did you say?” my husband Ed turned toward me, confusion showing.
“Nothing!” Sometimes there’s simply no explaining my little world to anyone.
“Get in the car! Hurry up.
”I fumbled the straps into place as they fastened the hood. Hit the starter. It cranked, and cranked, and cranked..."
With a racing first gear and a cold blooded motor, driving through the paddock was a challenge. The packed quarters, the people in street cars who would simply drive across in front of you without noticing they had stopped you cold, the simple trip to the grid took on a life of its own. I could tell the car still didn’t feel good. I rolled out behind the last cars to leave the grid.
My suspicions were confirmed early on when I rolled on the throttle, only to have it bog and stutter. Joel would later tell me I was throwing ‘contractor garbage bag sized’ flames out the pipe.
I turned two laps and came in. Matt plugged into the car, and I took Ed by the shoulder, “We need a dyno. We’re never going to get it right this way.”
The beauty of the Runoffs is the addition of support services. At Sonoma, high on top of the hills overlooking the track lies a sprawling shop complex. Here prep shops have taken up residence, ready to serve the racers who come through this historic venue. We gathered outside the metal building as the morning crept toward midway, waiting for our turn to get on the dyno.
Little did we know we would end up on it for seven hours.
It became a blur about 4 hours in, as the fumes and noise got to me. One memorable moment occurred as we were about to start a pull. The car was hot, the tunnel next to me too hot to touch for long. As I reached for the switch to fire up the motor, motion caught my eye. I looked down, into the footwell where to my horror a sheet of fuel was cascading down the firewall, over the pedals and my feet. It was pumping like Montour Falls in the spring.
I launched out the driver’s door like a Jack in the Box as fuel pooled on the floor beneath the car and in the footwell. Reaching back in, I slapped the fuel pump switch to off.“Holy crap!” Matt said, in the understatement of the day.
It would turn out to be a propitious event. During the motor swap, the fuel injector line hadn’t gotten tightened down completely, leaving a vacuum. That vacuum leak had led to all sorts of running issues and was preventing us from tuning the car effectively. If we hadn’t flushed it out on the dyno, we very well could have found it when the car burst into flames on the track instead.
But we still weren’t out of the woods yet, oh hell no. Because when things go to hell, they go no matter how good your intentions are.
The week dragged on. All around us were parties and events every night, events we bypassed as we toiled in the garage trying to get the car to run right. I won’t bore you with details, but the baseline problem stemmed from the fuel management system. It was effectively drowning the spark with gallons more fuel being poured on then than they needed.
Each night, the occupants of the garage drained away and still we stayed, laboring in a pool of metallic tinged silence. Across the paddock, I could hear the various parties and get togethers going on in full swing.
And we missed every single one of them.
The darkness had been upon us for several hours by the time we left the darkened bowl among the hills, the distant glow of San Francisco and the bay area painting the far horizon. We had rented a house in Sonoma, a one story building tucked away off a residential street with an oasis of gardens surrounding it. As we neared the intersection, the glow of neon from the lone restaurant, Jaunita Juanita, welcomed us. Wearily, we trooped in, reeking of carbon monoxide fumes. One thing about the west coast; if you love Mexican food, you are in the right place.
The décor of Juanita Juanita was threadbare, the tables long, rickety wooden affairs. Children’s drawings adorned the walls, neon beer signs cast a red glow across us from the window at our back.
But the food was good, plentiful and cheap. Our spirits rose with the fullness of our bellies. Tomorrow will be better, we told each other, let’s try this, or maybe that.
Joel looked over at Little Man sticking up out of my backpack. “I’m thinking that maybe you should throw that thing in the garbage can.”
“I can’t do that!” Horrified, I pulled Little Man closer to me.
“Well, then maybe you should leave him at the house then. I’m not feeling so good about how things have been going with him here.”
I’m not superstitious. I know that sometimes things just go to hell in a handbasket, and there is nothing you can do about it.
But I looked at Little Man’s bald dome sticking out of the bag and found I had to agree with Joel.
He was banished to the kitchen for the remainder of the trip.
If you have been in racing for any length of time, you already know this. Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you. It seems that if your luck has gone south, it does not come back. And as the week progressed, I could tell our luck had definitely gone south, probably with a full set of luggage and a return ticket stamped for some time in 2019.
Because it damn sure was gone for this week.
And still, the guys did not quit. Matt, Ed and Joel huddled over the car, computer plugged in, at times with the Honda guys, other times with the AEM people. Parts flew, changes were made, then I was buckled in and sent out, eventually turning a few anemic laps for qualifying.
By race day, which for us was Friday, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen.
Matt would later tell me the car had a “hardware/firmware issue.” In hindsight, if we could have known, we could have brought out one of our computers from the other car and hopefully wired it in. But we didn’t, so when in doubt, punt.
They buckled me in for the race. Ed leaned in the window, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but give it hell.” I looked back at him, Matt, Joel and Kelly and promised, “I’m not gonna promise you anything, but I’m gonna try like hell. Light me up."
I was gridded DFL, which in technical race parlance means, ‘Dead fucking last.” Sometimes though, that’s freeing to you. You have nothing to lose, no spots to give up, no mistakes to be made to allow anyone past. I had a true, “fuck it, let’s roll” mentality going as we headed out on the pace lap.
But I could feel the stutter in the engine still, not nearly as bad (thank you Matt for your hard thrashing) but there.
As I rounded turn 11, a hard hairpin back to the main straight, I started getting on the throttle early. Best case scenario, I get a jump on the start from DFL. But before the green even appeared, the field was already pulling away from me. The car hit half throttle and bogged heavily yet again.
Today was not to be.“Just drive the line. Hit every apex, do what you can on making good laps, fling it everyplace you can,” I told myself,
“It’s a track day, use it for school. ”It was a long race. The field raced off and disappeared over the hills. I chased after them, hitting apexes, talking myself through the corners, no longer worried about trying to race, resigned to a top speed of 60 mph.
It began happening a couple laps in. At the 7/8 turn complex was a large expanse where different track configurations were. And they started dragging dead cars in and stacking them there.
I knew that if I could at least keep running, that I wouldn’t finish the race DFL. It’s a production race; there are cars older than I am being flogged out there. And some of them would fall by the wayside.
As the laps ticked down, I kept an eye on the graveyard. Two cars, three cars, then five cars.
I kept going, pointing by the eventual winner Jason Isley as he stormed past, my garage mate Brian Linn in hot pursuit.
But something else was beginning to happen too, something that had already occurred earlier in the week during the mammoth dyno session, something I noticed but hadn’t addressed thanks to all of the other pressing issues we faced.The car was filling up with fumes.
With it running so rich, and with the low pressure behind it, we theorized later that I was sucking the exhaust into the car instead of out of it.
I was very well aware of it; when you are racing, you have to try to stay cognizant of all threats. I could smell it, felt it in my burning eyes and pounding head, then had to make a decision even as I began to feel decidedly woozy; stay out or throw in the towel.
I thought of the past week, of the guys working long into the night, of the support and teamwork they showed, the refusal to give up.
“One more lap.” I chanted that each time past start finish. Sticking my hand up in the window, I used my fingers to channel air in across my face, momentarily dissipating the fumes.
“You really should go in this time,” I told myself even as I passed through turns 7 and 8, spying yet another car in the graveyard.
By now, my eyes were watering and my thoughts were jumping around. The white flag was flying as I came down the backside towards turn 11.
“Don’t quit. They didn’t quit; you’re not quitting.
One more lap.You. Don’t. Quit.”
That last lap was painfully slow, my line sloppy and wide of the apexes. I didn’t care.
“Focus, focus, last lap, git ‘er done!”
I was alone as I exited the hairpin and saw the checker waving.Never have I been so glad to see a checkered flag in my life. Ed came on the radio, “I’m sorry, hon. I feel like we let you down.” “Are you kidding? You guys can never, ever let me down. Every one of you worked so hard for this. I’m so sorry it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it, but you certainly did not let me down. It just wasn’t meant to be this year.”
I killed the motor and slumped in the carin the garage for several minutes as the noise and fumes drained away. Crawling out, I took a bottle of water from Joel and made my way to the front of the bay where I briefly contemplated the chair before deciding the cool, concrete floor looked more inviting.
I laid down and just breathed.
Ed came over, “Are you ok?”
“Yeah. I just sucked up a bunch of fumes. Probably took a few years off my life. No big deal.”
Joel came over, “Those were the old, wrinkly years anyway.”
“You want to go to medical and suck on some oxygen?” Ed asked.I could feel the fogginess draining away. “Nah. Just let me lie here for a while. I’m fine.”
I laid there, probably twenty minutes, just allowing myself to breath and not think. Finally, I crawled up and sat in a chair.
My phone was lying on the table attached to the armrest. I picked it up and began to morosely surf. I tapped the Facebook icon and to my astonishment, found it full of notifications.
“Woo hoo! Way to go! Congratulations on your top ten Runoffs finish!”
“Hard charger award!”
I thumbed through the messages, to find to my everlasting astonishment and amusement, that simply by staying out, by not quitting, we had ended up tenth, and were awarded the Sunoco Hard Charger award.
Sometimes you learn more about yourself in defeat than in victory. The result isn’t always pretty,and it isn’t always what you would like. I know it’s easy to stay in the fray when you are in the hunt. But it isn’t as easy when you have no chance, and have fought an uphill battle all week. There are times when you should throw in the towel. At Watkins Glen in September I chose to forgo the race when it became apparent my car was about to lose the headgasket. There was zero gain in staying out and potentially dumping super slick antifreeze all over the course when we had a crowded field.
But when others aren’t endangered, quitting isn’t an option when you are part of a team. And sometimes, there are unexpected rewards.
“You aren’t bringing that thing home, are you?” Joel looked over at my luggage, at Little Man and his blank stare in the sunshine streaming in the window.“Of course I am. He has a round trip ticket. In fact, he’s coming to all of the races with us next year.”
Shaking his head, he grabbed his bag and stepped out onto the deck. I followed him out into the California sun and began the long trip home.